Solar air heaters provide cost-effective relief to a furnace

Many homeowners in bright, open residences have decided to capitalize on these qualities with solar power. By installing solar panels or collectors, a homeowner can meet some of their electricity or hot water needs in a clean, inexpensive way.

Solar systems that heat the home during the chilly days of winter are less common. There are fewer hours of sunlight during these months, and solar systems may not be able to meet the energy needs required to heat a home. However, solar features can still provide a good supplement to your home heating systems and help bring down your energy costs.

You should start by determining if your home is a good candidate for solar heat in the winter. Stephen Hren, writing for the magazine Home Power, says the low angle of the winter sun means it is more likely to be blocked by trees or other obstacles. Ideally, your home's south-facing wall should have full sunlight for at least four hours during the day.

Solar air heaters are a fairly simple system. In addition to the premade models available on the market, there are several guides available for homeowners who want to try building their own. The home sustainability site Modernize.com says the systems are typically affordable and require minimal maintenance aside from the occasional cleaning.

A solar air heater is an insulated box with a glass front panel and a black layer to absorb solar heat. The box is attached to the outside of the home, while a hose running through it brings cool air into the heater and warmed air out of it. Hren says there are a variety of other designs available, including ones that use a screen or other material to make the air more turbulent and thus improve the heat transfer.

Solar air heaters may be either passive or active. A passive model circulates air by convection and does not use electricity. Instead, air leaves the system as it is warmed and cooler air is pulled in, creating an ongoing current. However, passive heaters usually radiate much of the trapped heat back into the atmosphere.

Active heaters use an electric fan to circulate air, making them more complex but also more efficient. The fan can be connected to a temperature sensor or turned on and off manually.

Heaters can also be mounted in a window instead of a wall, eliminating the need to drill through an exterior wall to accommodate air hoses. Kathryn Hawkins, writing for the home improvement site HouseLogic, says these self-contained units include intake and outtake vents as well as a fan. The main drawback of a window-mounted heater is that it will block sunlight from entering a room.

Some heaters are designed to be portable. Modernize.com says these may be freestanding or window-mounted, and work by having solar collectors heat up air as it moves through the unit. The heaters can be easily moved to different locations to be placed in the sunniest parts of the home.

In general, solar air heaters work to heat individual rooms or supplement another heating system. Hawkins says you can usually install the heaters on your own if you are confident in your carpentry skills. However, you may want to enlist an HVAC professional if you decide to install several solar heaters, since you may need to modify your ductwork to better distribute heat through the home.

Solar power can often be combined with other types of heating systems as well. The Department of Energy says solar energy may be used to heat water to be distributed through a radiant floor heating or hot water radiator system. However, a conventional furnace is usually necessary as a backup source of power.

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